Taking a walk one evening on a country road with a friend, we paused when he said, “Look at this flashlight.”
I laughed because the intensity in his voice didn’t match with what he had just stated. “So what? It’s a flashlight,” I replied.
“You don’t understand. It’s the best of its kind.” And he proceeded to explain the reasons. He had the pleasure of owning the best flashlight in the world. And he loved it, the lightness of the instrument, its piercing yet adjustable beam. I began to think about the concept, what it means to be acquainted with an object that is the best of its kind, whether it be a tool, a piece of equipment, an article of clothing, a bottle of wine, almost anything that can be recognized as having the highest quality.
I recalled being in the clothing business many years earlier, working in the ateliers of Rome. Clothing on that level was unlike anything I’ve worn since. The texture, weight, and colors of fabric compelled sight and touch, and the perfection of pieces stitched together by women, who had made entire careers of doing so, was a marvel of detail and technique. The design and sensation of the clothing on the body was as comfortable and organic as another layer of skin.
Recently, I was ambling down the street of a coastal town on a Sunday afternoon and joined a small group that had surrounded a car parked at the curb. The owner was animated, pointing out the details of his Tesla Roadster, and the group listened with attention. I learned the meaning of torque, how the car could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds, not necessarily relevant to everyday driving but conceptually important to its owner. At least, he could have moved out of harm’s way quickly enough if he needed to. We marveled at the design and detail of the technology as he described it.
Of course, the best of its kind comes with a price tag that can range from enormous to small, depending on the object. At the time, I think my friend’s flashlight was $25. The Tesla was $100K. But having the means to acquire the best isn’t necessarily a motivator. We have to perceive the value. An Italian winemaker and his wife stopped by my office before Christmas and remarked that Americans didn’t appreciate good food. Unlike the Italian, the American would be just as happy opening a can instead of seeking out the freshest green bean. After all, they both staunch hunger equally well. Some one gave me a bar of hand made soap. When I mentioned it to another friend, she asked what difference it made. Ivory cleans just as well. I would have thought so too until I had used the gifted soap.
I once drank a wine that Robert Parker had awarded 98 points. I hope I won’t be disappointing anyone when I say that I don’t have this opportunity every day. To tell the truth, I don’t remember off hand which wine it was. I remember only that it was Italian. Say what you will about Robert Parker and his preferences, a wine that he awards 98 points is a memorable experience. And I remember it clearly, especially its texture, the finest tannins that I could imagine, the way that tannin, acid, and fruit flavor were seamlessly woven together into a whole that coated the mouth with extraordinary sensation. Normal retail for the bottle was $70 at the time. The experience was a benchmark education that allowed me to better evaluate other wines.
At a time when machines and the world market offer us plenty of inexpensive, mass-produced goods, we can forget, if we ever even knew, what true quality is. Yet it’s not a bad idea to have experienced it if only as a reference point that allows us to make better choices.